Pittsburgh Native Steve Moakler is Making Music, Making a Difference

By Matthew Hacke | Photograph from Spencer Combs

Singing hit songs, building birdhouses for a great cause — is there anything Steve Moakler can’t do? We chatted with the Pittsburgh native about his current endeavors, including opening up for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s SOUL2SOUL tour at PPG Paints Arena on October 12.

How did you get the opportunity to tour with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw?
They did a show at the Ryman here in Nashville. Because I’m friends with another artist and songwriter, Lori McKenna — whom they adore — I was able to slide backstage and meet them both. They could not have been more kind. I’m a huge fan of theirs. They’re both living legends, so it was a huge honor to be asked to open for them on some dates.  

What do you love most about touring? 
The best part about performing is that moment that we’re trying to create every night, this atmosphere and this connection between us and the crowd. We want people to let go and tap into that uninhibited spirit. It doesn’t happen every night, and sometimes maybe you get 15 percent of that reaction. But other times, you’re overwhelmed by the response.

What’s it like for you to perform back home in Pittsburgh? 
My mom’s whole side of the family still lives in Pittsburgh. My parents just moved this past year to North Carolina. So, that has been a little bit weird for me because I don’t have a house there anymore. But I have so many family members and friends that still live in Pittsburgh and my roots are there, so those memories will never go away. I live in Nashville now, but the longer I am away from Pittsburgh, the more I love and miss it and I appreciate what’s so special about it.

How did growing up in Pittsburgh influence your fourth studio album, Steel Town?
I was really writing for this album for about two years. I quickly noticed a common theme with some of the songs, which was a thread of looking back on the place and the people who raised me and the times we had, so it was really natural. I didn’t set out and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to make a record about where I grew up.’ It was just a pretty prominent thread and was produced by another guy from Western, PA, Luke Laird. So, it was really cool for two guys from Western PA to kind of tell this lyrical story. 

Are there any specific songs Pittsburgh fans will resonate with?
The song ‘Steel Town’ is the most obvious. It’s really a song that shines a light on what it is like to grow up in a blue-collar, middle-class town in Western PA, and the kind of things you learn and the way it shaped me. There’s another song called ‘Siddle’s Saloon,’ that’s about a bar in my grandfather’s basement in Bridgeville, which I think very much embodies the Pittsburgh spirit of having a bar in the basement and watching Steelers games and kind of an invitation to come pull up a seat. There’s also a song called ‘Just Long Enough,’ which is kind of about looking back on those high school years. All of those memories that feel like everything and then suddenly fade away.  

Let’s talk about Free the Birds, the organization you began in 2011. How did that come to be? 
It really started when I was looking for a hobby. I realized my life was so much about making records and putting on shows. I needed an outlet. I needed to do something else — something with my hands. So I started to make birdhouses, just for the simple act of making a birdhouse and enjoying it. And then, I went to a church service [in 2007] and I heard about the human sex trade for the first time. I was just dumbfounded, heartbroken, and shocked to hear about it. I just couldn’t believe it was a real thing. It kind of sat there and weighed on my heart for a year or two. At that time, I didn’t feel like I had a big enough platform to do anything or to really make an impact. 

When did you decide to connect your hobby to this cause?
Songwriters are obsessed with metaphors, so I saw [the birdhouses] as a metaphor — a symbol of freedom and refuge. There’s this quote that I heard that kind of helped me to understand this metaphor more clearly. It goes, ‘God loved the birds, so he made trees. Man loved the birds, so he made cages.’ That quote was so profound to me, it really rung a bell. I thought, ‘Maybe the birdhouses are where people intervene, and help repair and restore what’s broken.’ So, I kept building them and selling them on my website. I brought a birdhouse around to all of our headline concerts, put one on the merchandise table, and invited people to give. I talk about it onstage for a minute, and the birdhouse just fills up with cash [laughs]. Then, we send 100 percent of the proceeds to one of the different nonprofits that we work with. Since we started in 2011, I’ve built close to 150 birdhouses and we’ve raised over $30,000!

Steve Moaklerstevemoakler.comFree the Birds, stevemoakler.com/free-the-birds.

Photographs from Hunter Airheart

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